The picture and notice of my uncle Gottfried’s passing is the latest addition to the album of Our Departed. We, my mother and I, collect the death notices of our deceased in this special book. We keep tabs on those who’ve left us behind. From the outside, the album does not look properly somber. A tornado of 1980’s graphic design (bold neon colors, lightning bolts and triangles) disgraces the cover. But the price was right. And it’s the content that counts. And the good intentions. We supply both: everybody who was anybody, everybody who no longer has a body, is commemorated in The Book of Our Departed.
Uncle Gottfried left the earth most recently, at age 74, and his parting picture (the one accompanying the notice of his passing, the notice that says he was a good man, survived and missed by us all) is a wistful portrait. He smiles sadly, knowingly, as if posing for the purpose of a last good-bye. Uncle Gottfried was not a wistful man and he didn’t smile. My cousins and I had to mime our games around him. He was forever “resting” on the sofa, in his brown pants and his white ribbed undershirt, suspenders dangling by his sides. Whenever our game of Cowboys and Indians spilled into the living room, we knew to immediately switch to slow-motion reenactment and to lose all sound. Around Uncle Gottfried our most dramatic showdowns became homages to The Silent Era.
What is it about Our Departed and their photographs? All of them smile in their final portrait; as if instructed, as if it were their senior class picture: College of Existence. Graduating Class. Majoring in Mortality. Honor students, all of them! And yet, when his picture was taken my uncle couldn’t have known that it would be placed within a black border, to the left of a black slender cross.
Once I slowly, very slowly, bled dry near Uncle Gottfried’s suspenders, between his slippers on the fl oor at the edge of the sofa, after my cousin Robert had shot me with his wooden rifl e. I was Billy the Kid or Smokey and the Bandit. Either way I had it coming and my alter ego gruesomely expired at the foot-end of Uncle Gottfried. Perhaps one of my capitulating hands fell into his dangling suspender. The whole time I took great pains to remain very, very quiet. Uncle Gottfried never stirred. Even after my demise so near his lower half, he didn’t move. When I clumsily and abruptly resurrected myself so as to retaliate against Robert, Uncle Gottfried didn’t stir either. He thought nothing of engaging with children.
He was part of the voluntary fi refi ghters. I saw his uniform once. Hanging on the back of the kitchen door. It smelled of old sweat, burnt rubber and eucalyptus candy. I touched the white refl ecting stripes gingerly. “Firefi ghting,” I thought, “must be very tiring.”
And sometimes when he slept, he let the paper, the Daily Messenger, fall over his face for privacy. This is how I found out about AIDS. An article was on the front page, and the page was draped over Uncle Gottfried. He kept breathing evenly while I read about the virus, and all the while his undershirt-covered belly stretched up and fell down like soufflé.